In her poem "For My People," Margaret Walker encapsulated the joy and despair shared by a culture.
By: Legacy Staff
3 years ago
The Harlem Renaissance is well-known – a period of great creative output from a group of African-American artists living in New York City in the 1920s. It was a pivotal historical moment for a group of creative people long overdue for recognition. But Harlem wasn't the only place where African-American artists gathered and flourished in the first half of the 20th century. Something similar took place in Chicago during the 1930s and '40s, led by the likes of Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. That Midwestern renaissance yielded the writing of Margaret Walker (1915 - 1998).
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, Walker came to Chicago to attend Northwestern University. She quickly immersed herself in the burgeoning writers' culture there, attending readings, meeting Harlem Renaissance great Langston Hughes and becoming friends with Wright. And she began publishing her own work, beginning with poetry. Her poems spoke of the vast African-American experience, exploring slavery and the poverty that followed emancipation, calling out for civil rights, and honoring murdered activists such as Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
Walker also spent decades writing a book titled "Jubilee," the single novel she'd publish during her lifetime. The historical novel of slavery and emancipation followed a female slave who was based on Walker's own grandmother. While the novel received mixed reviews in its day, today it is seen as an important piece of literary history, an early example of black history presented by a black writer. Ten years after the book's 1966 publication, an opera based on its story debuted, written by Ulysses Kay with libretto by Donald Dorr.
Though Walker was in Chicago during its African-American literary renaissance, she left the city in later years to teach at Mississippi's Jackson State University. There, she founded the Institute for the Study of History, Life and Culture of Black People (now the Margaret Walker Center). She released three spoken-word albums on which she read her own poetry and that of Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and she was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Walker died of breast cancer Nov. 30, 1998.
Perhaps her best-known work is the poem "For My People." The collection in which it was published, also titled "For My People," won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, making her the first African-American writer to receive that honor. It was the first poem she read publicly, and it has been widely praised for its encapsulation of the joy and despair shared by a culture.
Read "For My People" in full at PoetryFoundation.org.